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Afghanistan should be regional trade hub, says top Uzbek senator

Politician Safoyev Says Neighbor Needs North-south Transport Corridor

The cargo center in Termez in southern Uzbekistan is a base for trade with Afghanistan. The Uzbek government has proposed extending a railway from there to as far as the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. (Photo by Yohei Ishikawa)

Afghanistan should push to become a regional trade hub as it fights to pull its economy out of the turmoil sparked by the withdrawal of U.S. forces, a parliamentary leader in neighboring Uzbekistan told Nikkei Asia.

The comment comes as countries in the region sharpen their focus on the future of Afghanistan, worried that instability in the nation could ripple across their borders.

Sodiq Safoyev, first vice chairman of Uzbekistan's Senate, said in an interview that "factors of an economic nature" are a pressing concern for Afghanistan as it looks to emerge from the chaos that engulfed the country after the Taliban took over in August.

Safoyev, a former foreign minister who is still prominent in discussions on foreign policy in the region, said Afghanistan should try to play a central role in trade.

He noted how the roots of the country's economic woes stretch back decades. He said the invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979 knocked the economy off a "normal" trajectory, leaving many Afghans with no choice but to join the conflict as fighters or work in narcotics production to earn a living. "There are already two generations of Afghans who have never lived in peace," Safoyev said.

"Poverty must be eliminated to build peace in the war-torn nation," he said, adding that "Afghanistan should be incorporated into the regional process of economic development, especially trade. Investment projects should be launched to create jobs in the country."

Senior Uzbek politician Sodiq Safoyev. (Photo by Yohei Ishikawa)

Safoyev said the term "Central Asia" is now often used to describe only his country and four other nearby nations that gained independence from the Soviet Union 30 years ago. But he noted that Afghanistan too was historically seen as part of Central Asia, especially due to its key position on the ancient Silk Road, and that it is again merging with the rest of the region both economically and culturally.

Safoyev called for the construction of a transport corridor running from north to south Afghanistan to help economic development. "The Uzbek government has also proposed extending an existing railway, which runs from Termez in the southeastern Uzbekistan to Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar," he said. The line could be further expanded to Pakistani ports such as Karachi, becoming part of the Belt and Road network of infrastructure spanning Eurasia that has been promoted by China.

Turning to immediate worries over Afghanistan, Safoyev cited the possibility of waves of refugees flowing into Uzbekistan and other neighboring countries. He also pointed out that the unrest in Afghanistan could muddy the outlook for the entire region, discouraging foreign investment.

Safoyev said Uzbekistan provides strong support to foreigners and Afghans trying to flee Afghanistan, based on humanitarian concerns and its policy of valuing partnerships with other nations.

Asked about news reports that the U.S. military is considering establishing a military base in Central Asia to deal with the situation in Afghanistan, Safoyev replied, "Uzbek law means such a move could not happen in my country."